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The Sacred, Profane And Placid: New Classical CDs

New York Polyphony's new CD, <em>Tudor City</em>, mixes music from Britain's Tudor era with new compositions.
New York Polyphony's new CD, Tudor City, mixes music from Britain's Tudor era with new compositions.

Now that we're comfortably ensconced in the age of downloads and podcasts, the blockbuster classical record labels aren't as important as they once were. Here, NPR Music's Tom Huizenga and Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz spin a wide variety of music on independent labels.

From the beauty of four voices interlaced in a reverberant cathedral to the pent-up angst of a Cold War-era symphony to the chilled-out, wide-open spaces of a piano trio in slow motion, the little labels are releasing some of the most exciting classical music these days.

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Weinberg: Symphony No. 7 -- Allegro - Adagio sostenuto

You have to be kind of a classical nerd to know about Weinberg, but he's worth seeking out. Although overshadowed by his contemporaries -- the biggest names in Soviet music, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian -- Weinberg wrote some original and arresting music. In the fascinating Symphony No. 7 for strings and harpsichord, Weinberg tips his hat to the old baroque concerto grosso, while indulging his own introspective style. This finale is the heart and soul of the symphony, with odd contributions from the harpsichord, outbursts of demonic urgency and a few relaxed grooves.

Andrew Smith: 'Surrexit Christus'

The group is relatively new, founded in 2006, but these four guys sound like they've been singing together a lot longer than that. Their voices blend into a rich, natural sound that's larger and more complex than the sum of its parts. The title, Tudor City, is a double-edged reference. It's a neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, but it also refers to the music on this CD, most of which was composed during the reign of England's Tudor dynasty (1485-1603), except for a few new pieces like "Surrexit Christus," written beautifully in the old style by Andrew Smith.

Feldman: Trio (excerpt)

This is very quiet music for our bustling lifestyles. Feldman challenges our expectations by writing for the traditional piano-trio combo (piano, violin, cello) popularized by Mozart, but stretching his piece out to 105 minutes. I love what Alex Ross wrote about Feldman in The New Yorker years ago: "Feldman was a big, brusque Jewish guy from Woodside, Queens -- the son of a manufacturer of children's coats. He worked in the family business until he was 44 years old. To almost everyone's surprise but his own, he turned out to be one of the major composers of the 20th century, a sovereign artist who opened up vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound."

CPE Bach: Sonata in C minor -- Allegro

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is without a doubt my favorite of the musical sons of the big guy himself, Johann Sebastian Bach. He just never writes dull music. It's always fresh and propulsive, often with a little something strange thrown in. He was really quite ahead of his time, and some people in his day felt his music was too strange, with its wide swings in dynamics and melody, odd key modulations and the trademark jerking stops and starts. All of it, of course, within the framework of solidly built music. And those so-called "quirks"? They would be standard practice in years to come in music by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique -- "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath"

Usually with Hector Berlioz, more is more. The spectacularly ahead-of-his-time French composer loved to pull out all the stops, and there's no better example of that than his giant, opium-fueled, psychotic Symphonie Fantastique from 1830. Yet in this new recording -- by the group Anima Eterna, on original instruments -- less appears to be more. Conductor Jos van Immerseel pares the orchestra down to only about 50 players (a Berlioz-approved size) and achieves a winning transparency, never over-emphasizing Berlioz's special effects, yet retaining their essential creepiness. Listen for the booming dual pianos (imitating bells tolling) and the nervous, skittering winds.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.